My first realisation of the reality of WW2 in Cassino and the area called Ciociaria in central-south Italy was learning the story of Montecassino, the Benedictine Monastery at the end of the Benedictine Way that sits on the spur of Mount Cassino above today’s town of Cassino.
The monastery can be easily seen from the A1 linking Rome and Naples, but a visit is for me essential. The friars knew that their abbey and monastery would soon be destroyed by the allies as it had become a centre of command for the German forces. The inevitable came on 15 February 1944, the day Montecassino perished after nearly 1500 years.
“The architectural plans for the abbey were removed to Rome, along with the artworks and library, before the bombs and shells reduced the structure to a half million cubic metre pile of rubble. On February 15, 1945, a year after the destruction, the new foundation stone was set down for its rebuilding. 19 years later the Marshall Plan-supported rebuilding was completed and Pope Paul VI consecrated it. All the treasures and archival documents were returned”.
What I have seen along with all of my generation is the renaissance of Montecassino, as if the war had not occurred. But the souls of the tens of thousands of soldiers resting forever in the fields, mountains and cemeteries of this scene of massive warring destruction, know otherwise.
Their screams as they burned in exploding tanks or just their tears as they bled into the mud must not be forgotten. The Canadian author Mark Zuehlke, noted in his search of this theatre that 138 Canadians died on 23 March 1945 in the Liri valley conflict. In his search through the verdant
green of the Commonwealth war cemetery he found messages from home to their sons – “I cannot say/and I will not say/ that he is dead/he is just away”.
Italy remembered the allies and their contribution to freedom despite the fact that these men came in their swarms following possibly the most brutal bombing raids that Italy has seen, raids that eliminated small villages such as Acquafondata, many towns in the valleys and hills, and the larger towns such as Cassino and Frosinone.
For Cassino, the destruction was complete and the town I now drive through a few kilometres off the autostrada, the town where I can enjoy a concert in the Roman amphitheatre, is actually about 2km from the Cassino of early 1944.
And even the industrial investment forces that attempted to rebuild Cassino through a giant Fiat factory have not been enough to breath permanence into the renaissance of that town.
Yet, the creative force of spontaneity, when you are no longer certain of the future, have recreated and rebuilt Frosinone, of which only areas of the old town seemed to survive in 1945.
There was joy among the dread of the destruction, in towns such as Anagni, where the Canadians marched through the town after the Germans abandoned it, being showered with ‘roses of all colours’ by the ladies in the houses along the narrow cobblestone corso.
The Canadians formed up to welcome the approximately 500 partisans who had come in from the hills. ‘The whole affair was most dramatic and colourful, and the square was draped with Italian flags and bunting in Savoy colors’.
Today, in Anagni, the square below the cathedral is open, a memory of the massive bombing while all can view the marvellous crypt of the cathedral that god preserved.
(Quotes in Italics are from the book by Mark Zuehlke, ‘The Liri Valley: Canada’s World War II Breakthrough to Rome’)